February 22nd is Edward Gorey’s birthday. Of course, he is D for Dead. No matter; we still have his drawings and weird stories. All week, we’ll have Gorey posts in anticipation of a nice, little party that celebrates the man who brought us poor Xerxes and cloven Kate (whom we miss): yes, the Edwardian Ball.
Today, the Birthday day, we have a quite detailed interview with Gregory Hischak, Curator of The Edward Gorey House. This is thanks to the quite strenuous efforts of our own Clay Soot and may be as close as you’ll ever get, as the house is located quite far from here.
Lacy Soto: What would you consider the most oftrepeated and incorrect assumption about the life of Edward Gorey?
Gregory Hischak: Number One assumption is that he was English and he lived 100 years ago. He wasn’t and he didn’t. Edward was from Chicago and he died in 2000.
LS: During my research I uncovered a couple of different explanations why The Edward Gorey House is also referred to as “The Elephant House.” Could you please explain the origin of this curious nickname?
GH: We’ve given each docent here at the House a different explanation as to the origins of “The Elephant House” as kind of a reenactment of the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant: all of them are correct, but none of them see the whole. One explanation is that the cedar shingles that covered the House when Edward bought it in 1979 were covered with peeling white paint (you don’t paint cedar shingle) and the overall effect was that of elephant skin. We have a portion of this siding on display to illustrate our point it looks remarkably like an elephant’s skin. Also, the cica 1890 toilets installed in the house when Edward purchased it looked like elephants, the bottom halves of elephants anyway. They too are on display to prove our point. Also, Edward was warned by friends and family that he was buying a “White Elephant” and that it would need a lot of work. It needed a LOT of work. Lastly, Edward liked elephants, and so he named it The Elephant House. Having moved from a Murray Hill studio apartment to a 14 room house, it probably felt pretty gigantic.
LS: How many books did Gorey write and illustrate? How many covers do you think he illustrated for other authors? He must have created many paperback covers when he worked for Doubleday!
GH: Edward created about 100 of his own books through a multitude of publishers, including 28 books on his Fantod Press. He created 50 covers for Doubleday Anchor and did art direction and typography for a couple dozen more (working occasionally with freelance illustrators like Andy Warhol and Milton Glaser). We don’t have an accurate count of the covers and interior illustration he did for others. We had 100 covers in the 2015 exhibit and that was highly selective. The probable number approaches 400 or so.
LS: If you were to assemble an essential Edward Gorey reading list for someone new to his work, what titles would you include and why?
GH: A reading list is highly subjective and because Edward’s books generally take about six minutes to read I usually just tell people to read all of them. That said, of his alphabet works I prefer The Glorious Nosebleed though The Gashlycrumb Tinies would be the big votegetter. As far as his subtly layered works, The Evil Garden. For the sheer beauty of his draftsmanship his illustrations to Lear’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose is rather breathtaking, though I suppose The Jumblies is too. As far as books about Edward Ascending Peculiarites is an excellent collection of interviews and Looking for Edward Gorey by the University of Hawaii Press is a very smartly written overview as well.
LS: At the time of Gorey’s death in 2000 it’s rumored that he had over 25,000 books in his collection. What are some of the highlights of The Gorey House library and would you consider Gorey a collector of rare books?
GH: There were indeed over 25,000 volumes in the house and they are now all in the hands of San Diego State University. To wildly understate it, Edward’s tastes were eclectic. In his book and art collecting, he ran the gamut from hunting down a rare volume for no particular reason to buying boxes of paperbacks at yardsales. He pretty much singlehandedly moved the contents of Parnassus Books from their shop a few blocks away to this house box by box. His library seems to be without any clear focus, a lot of novels, histories, artbooks… whatever his attention was drawn to at that moment. When he was creating puppet shows here on the Cape, he amassed several boxes of books on Indonesian puppetry, Bavarian puppetry (there are a LOT of Bavarian Puppetry books around), Indian puppetry – only half of the books seemed to be in English.
LS: What are some of more highly sought out collectible Gorey titles? How common are books signed by Gorey? What would you consider the “holy grail” of Goreyana?
GH: Edward certainly did sign a lot of books at Gotham Book Mart in New York and frequently here on the Cape. Chances of finding signed copies at yard sales here on the Cape were quite good for a while. As far as serious collectors go, The Pointless Book had a very limited run and tended to disintegrate as soon as it was opened (it is about matchbox dimensions and three quarters of an inch thick). It’s really more of a parody of bookmaking rather than an actual book. Nonetheless, it is worth a lot of money. Finding his popup book The Dwindling Party in good condition is very difficult. My personal favorite is The Improvable Landscape which the House has recently acquired. It is very rare and very funny.
LS: I’ve read that Gorey created his first drawing at the tender age of 18 months referred to as “The Sausage Train”. Is that a piece of artwork that is available for viewing at the Gorey House?
GH: We have a copy of “The Sausage Train” on display at the House. The original is likely locked away in the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust’s archives. We have a lot of other original art Edward did as a child through his mid-youth to his teens when he was imitating Vargas’ style, Di Chirico’s style. He was a very talented boy and his mother fortunately saved everything.
LS: Is it true the Gorey worked kneeling on the floor? Or is that just an urban legend of sorts?
GH: Edward probably didn’t kneel. He doesn’t strike me as a kneeling man. His studio contained an actual chair and, later, one of those backless ergonomically correct chairs that you kind of bend your legs into. I suspect it must have frightened the cats quite a bit.
LS: Louis Feuillade’s silent serial film Les Vampires (1915) is often referred to as one of his many influences and its importance is probably most evident in one of my favorite books of his The Gilded Bat (whose protagonist echoes the character of Musidora as Irma Vep – a use of anagram that surely amused Gorey). He was also known for his obsession with the ballets of George Balanchine… Do you know if his character Maudie Splaytoe was based on a particular ballerina or an amalgamation of ballerinas?
GH: Edward used the word “filtch” to describe something between “influenced by” and “blatantly stolen from” and in Feuillade’s case, we lean toward blatant stealing. An awful lot of Feuillade’s imagery worked its way into Edward’s drawings. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Balanchine’s company to say who Maudie might be based on. I am tempted to say it is a composite, but then visitors to the House who worked at the NYCB in those years have read The Lavendar Leotard and recognize very specific characters in it so it is possible that Maudie Splaytoe is a real person.
LS: I’ve read numerous interviews with Gorey where he expresses his admiration for Jane Austen, and it seems to me that the majority of Gorey heroines either resemble a character from an Austen novel or Louise Brooks. Who is your favorite Gorey heroine/villain?
GH: Gorey read everything and then he read it again. Everything had an influence on him certainly Jane Austen, but then also Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, and Agatha Christie . . . I was surprised that there was no Louise Brooks in Gorey’s video tape library, saddened even, but his videos were compiled in a preinternet age and Brooke’s films might not have been readily available.
LS: Another one of Gorey’s favorite influences was the artist Max Ernst and the collages in Une semaine de bonté seem to me very Goreyesque in it’s anthropomorphic whimsy. What other fine artists did he appreciate or perhaps in his own way emulate?
GH: Max Ernst had a powerful influence on Edward and even his Figbash character can be found floating around several of Ernst’s collages. At heart, Edward was a surrealist, and that group, with a special nod to Di Chirico, figure prominently in much of his work as early as in high school and college (indeed in many of the Doubleday Anchor covers as well). Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (beautifully engraved by the Brothers Dalziel) also impacted Gorey as did George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. I suspect Thurber was an early influence as well as Ernie Bushmiller.
LS: Gorey maintains plenty of modern imitators, such as Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket, Rob Reger, Dave McKean and John Kenn Mortensen (just to name a few) Who, if anyone, would you consider comparable in talent and tone to Gorey? Is it true that Neil Gaiman wanted Gorey to illustrate Coraline but he died the day the book was finished?
GH: I cannot vouch for the Coraline story, but let’s say it’s true. To say who displays a Gorey influence is also a pretty subjective thing. A constrained palette, an emotional detachment, fatalism, a sensual, whimsical violence, an ambiguous narrative thread – whether Gorey was the instigator or merely rode the first wave of these is an open question. Certainly Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) states Gorey as his influence, and Tim Burton seems to be influenced but no more so than Wes Anderson or Terry Gilliam.
LS: Supposedly Gorey hated the novels of Henry James’ but his illustrations for James’ Doubleday Anchor paperbacks are some of my favorites, especially What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age. Do you think Gorey actually read all the novels he was paid to illustrate?
GH: Gorey has stated that he hated Henry James more than anyone in the world except for Picasso. That said, he read and reread all of James’ work just to remind himself how much he hated him. Gorey certainly read the books he illustrated covers for. They were likely read years earlier and, again, several times before he was ever handed an illustration assignment. Because he was familiar with most of the books he illustrated, Gorey was very good at picking the salient episode of the book for the cover. I could speculate that he used this “snapshot of a larger narrative” in his own work, his illustrations that kind of throw you into a story midway and then leave you there to work your way through.
LS: Frequently we come across a Gorey illustrated John Bellairs’ cover. What, if anything, can you tell us about their relationship, considering he illustrated more covers for Bellairs than any other writer?
GH: Bellairs and Gorey never met, though Gorey did 20 Bellairs covers. The 20th book was completed by Brad Strickland, as Bellairs had died. Oddly enough, a rough for that cover was on Gorey’s drawing table at the time of his death. As to whether they even exchanged Christmas cards – who knows? It was interesting for last year’s cover exhibit how many people now in their 20s and 30s only knew Gorey as the illustrator of those Bellairs books.
LS: Gorey loved using anagrams of his name as pseudonyms. Which of these names is your particular favorite and why?
GH: Gorey seemed to favor Ogdred Weary (as his license plate said “OGDRED” and I doubt that it was coincidence that that just happened). I’ve always been partial to Regera Dowdy probably because Regera was so prolific. Though Dogear Wyrde is a lovely name as well.
LS: While the majority of Gorey’s books seem violent in nature, the horror is always implied and seems to take place out of the frame, which makes me wonder… What demons were lurking at the edges of his mind?
GH: One could say that Gorey played out his demons pretty fearlessly across paper. He possibly found life to be thickly populated with implied horrors and near horrors and potential carnage that, while usually stepped around, is still there. I always felt that at the end of the day Edward’s work says “Yes, the horrors are over there but you are over here. So get on with it.” That’s what we really like about him.
LS: Gorey was known for his eccentric taste in fashion and at one time was the owner of twenty one full length coats. Is it true he later donated or sold them as he became more concerned with the welfare of animals? What can you tell us about his interest in animal advocacy?
GH: Gorey neither donated nor sold his furs he merely stopped wearing them. Likely, this isn’t that he left open the possibility of changing his mind so much as that Edward had a hard time throwing anything away. In fact, the coats were quite warm. But Gorey’s interest in animal welfare was genuine and he took pains to see that royalties and licensing fees from his works went toward animal advocacy groups by setting up the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. The Xerces Society, The Elephant Sanctuary, the Bat Conservancy – these are three of the dozen or so groups that get funding from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.
LS: Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a bit about what The Gorey House’s exhibition and event plans are for 2016? I read something about “Mysterious Mayonnaise” ?
GH: We can officially now say that the 2016 exhibit is Artifacts from the Archives: Rare, Never Seen, Hardly Ever Seen & Rediscovered Works by Edward Gorey. We’ll be revealing a trove of seldom -seen and first-ever-seen artwork by Edward. It will be a very eclectic assemblage of childhood art, high school projects, an unpublished book from the early 50s, color works, another partially completed book about a guinea pig, ceramics, etchings and a lot of commercial illustration that has not been seen since publication. I also hope to get the art to The Improvable Landscape but much about gathering this artwork remains out of our control. All of (most of) Gorey’s original art lies in the Charitable Trust’s vault in New York and getting them to move in a timely way is, well, challenging. Regardless, the exhibit is a wonderful menagerie of creatures, characters and landscapes that, until now, have languished in obscurity.
LS: I’ll have to admit I was pretty impressed with some of the children’s illustrations for the Halloween Envelope Art Contest on The Gorey House website. What other seasonal activities are typical at the Gorey House? Was Gorey a big Halloween aficionado? I can’t recall reading about him discussing Halloween or seeing an image of him in costume. Actually, I haven’t seen too many images of him as a young person at all…
GH: The artwork received for 2015’s contest is pretty incredible as well and we had over 400 entries. We annually have our Fantastagorey Day, a childrens festival, the first Saturday of August. We have the AllAroundtheCommons day where we, and other buildings along the common here, are free. There is the Christmas Stroll, we have sporadic readings when the mood hits us as well. As far as Halloween goes, we haven’t found any images of Edward in costume and his mother, being the proto-scrapbooker that she was, would certainly have recorded it on film. We have a whole Gorey family album here on loan from the Trust. Edward had a very well documented childhood and he was as cute as a button.
LS: Gorey was an avid cat lover, and it’s been recorded that he generally had six cats at a time “Seven cats”, Edward said, “is too many”. Does the Gorey House have a house cat and does he or she have a Goreyesque moniker?
GH: At seven cats the dynamics seemed to change. The House’s cat, Ombledroom was a 27 lb creature who sadly passed away several years ago. (“The Ombledroom is vast and white, and therefore visible by night” from The Utter Zoo). He was not one of Edward’s cats but a rescue cat that showed up and made the House his home. He is missed.
LS: Finally… Why do you think The Doubtful Guest never moved out?
GH: If the Doubtful Guest is at least partially about adolescence, and it seems to be either generally or specifically Edward’s then likely the creature grew up shortly thereafter and moved out to a studio apartment in New York, or maybe it was drafted.
LS: Thank you Gregory!
Visit The Edward Gorey House here.